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Burlington Discover Jazz Festival's curator wants to expand your definition of jazz

A crowd near a stage with a sunset over the waterfront in the background.
Burlington Discover Jazz Festival
The Burlington Discover Jazz Festival includes concerts at Waterfront Park and other venues in Burlington from June 5-9.

The first major summer festival in the greater North Country region kicks off Wednesday night in Burlington, Vermont.

The Discover Jazz Festival features big names, including Seun Kuti — the son of afrobeat godfather Fela Kuti — and his band Egypt 80, Big Freedia and Robert Glasper. It also has more than a dozen lesser-known bands who are breaking boundaries and changing the definition of jazz. The opening concert featuring Cecile McLorin Salvant and Melanie Charles is Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Flynn theater in downtown Burlington.

A light-skinned Black woman with an afro and striped blazer holds a dark green bass.
Kendall Bessent
Bassist and singer Adi Oasis is the guest curator for this year's festival.

Bassist and singer Adi Oasis is the guest curator this year. She also performs for free Friday night at Waterfront Park.

Oasis spoke with David Sommerstein about what she was going for when she programmed the festival. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity. This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio.

Adi Oasis: It's actually rare that artists themselves get to control the narrative of what is being labeled the future of jazz. This was an opportunity for me to take control of this narrative.

It's definitely really young. The oldest artist is 46 or 47 years old. That's Robert Glasper. (I'm sorry. I called you old, Robert!)

So you don't have to be old to play jazz. You don't have to be rich to have studied jazz. I wanted to put an emphasis on the things that make me because I'm speaking from my perspective —women of color, Black women, people who speak another language, LGBTQ+, which I'm not but I'm an ally. So I wanted to make sure all of these things are on the bill, all of these people, and recognize that it doesn't take an effort to have these people on the bill. This is who we are. This is who exists in the music industry today.

We're starting the festival with Cecile McLorin Salvant and Melanie Charles at the Flynn. Both of these incredible women are jazz singers. They're young. They're very unique in their own way. They write their own songs. They just have such a charismatic aura and they are incredible singers and they happen to also both be of Caribbean, Haitian descent, which is funny because I'm also of Caribbean descent.

David Sommerstein: Hearing what you're talking about, that jazz doesn't have to be for rich people, that it doesn't have to be old people, it sounds like you're pushing against a stereotype of what jazz is and who it's for.

A poster with a multi-colored list of jazz artists on a black background.
Burlington Discover Jazz Festival

Adi Oasis: Yeah, a lot! I'm also, on a lighter note, making sure to represent genres that wouldn't usually be categorized as jazz. Who decides what's jazz really?

I don't consider myself a jazz artist for instance. But with that said, I've studied jazz, and I am definitely influenced by jazz. I wanted to put an emphasis on the influence that jazz has had on artists like us and where this is going in the future, because if we just revolve around one genre of music ... like, Miles Davis is not coming back. It's been mastered. It's been done. No one's doing it better and even Robert Glasper who's really "jazz" is mixing it with hip-hop. I do like this idea of looking towards the future, looking forward.

David Sommerstein: You have some artists playing, like Phony PPL, Carrtoons and others that are mixing jazz and hip-hop.

Adi Oasis: Yeah, and Lady Wray as well! This is a person, I just booked her for myself so I can give her a hug because I'm just a huge fan!

Lady Wray is very interesting because she started in more of the hip-hop / R&B world. At that time, she was named Nicole Wray and was featured on some Missy Elliott tracks. She had a very prolific career in the early 2000s and she came back recently with Big Crown records with a much more throwback sound. I think there's so much to share with her story and there's so much to learn from her.

David Sommerstein: What did you know about Burlington before you embarked on this process? Did Burlington figure in how you were thinking about the festival?

Adi Oasis: I've actually been to Burlington before. I actually performed in Burlington a few years ago. I think it was in 2015 or 2016. I played at the waterfront for a party with my old band, which I'm no longer a part of. We were on the bill with Morris Day and The Time. Oh my God! I got to meet Morris Day and his band! So that moment is forever a big-time moment in my career. So Burlington has always been attached to that for me. So I remembered Burlington for that reason.

It's probably no coincidence that later on, I'm like, 'okay, let's bring funk to Burlington because they know how to do it!' Since then, I've gotten to know Burlington a little bit more. I've come twice now for my work as a curator. Every single person I've met has been so welcoming, so warm. It's got that small-town vibe, people are just nice.

I do take pride in the fact that I'm curating something that's bringing some artists, most of them being my friends, to a place where I know they'll be treated kindly.

A Black femme-presenting man with long blonde hair, a multi-colored blouse, denim patchwork cape, and long manicured nails looks into the camera.
Burlington Discover Jazz Festival
Big Freedia will play a free show at the Burlington Waterfront on Friday night.

I hope that people have a great time together. We don't spend enough time together. We're still living in isolation. So I made sure to choose artists that really put on a show.

The other thing I care about is to inspire kids. I'm proud to know that some kids who might not play an instrument yet get to see a woman playing the bass. They get to see a woman playing a flute and singing in Italian. They get to see Mononeon, who's a bassist wearing an orange ski mask! You know? They get to see something different. Inspiring some kid that might be trans who gets to see Big Freedia and all of these things for me are important to expose people to. I think the more we're exposed to, the more we will be accepting of each other.

Amid a blurry crowd of people, a child sits on a man's shoulders facing away from the camera, toward a stage.
Burlington Discover Jazz Festival
Burlington Discover Jazz Festival will hold performances at Waterfront Park, the Flynn Main Stage, Top of the Block and other venues in Burlington throughout the weekend.

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